by Shamindra Ferdinando
Today, the electorate is at a crossroad with twice-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launching a new movement to form a government, at the Aug 17 parliamentary polls. A confident Rajapaksa launched his parliamentary polls campaign at Anuradhapura where he vowed to overcome the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination. The pledge was made at the largest ever gathering in the historic city, where Rajapaksa recalled ancient kings had defeated foreign invaders. The war-winning leader alleged that the present Yahapalana government had destroyed, within six months, what his administration had achieved since the conclusion of the war in May, 2009. The former President asked what would have happened if the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had continued for five years. Since the change of government, in January consequent to Rajapaksa’s defeat, some of those, who had switched their allegiance to the then common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena deserted the new administration. Having joined Yahapalana project, late last November, Liberal Party Leader and State Education, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, quit the administration in March. The UPFA included Prof. Wijesinha, in its National List submitted to the Elections Secretariat on July 13, hence making him a key element in Rajapaksa’s team.
Full text of an interview with Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
(Q) What led you to join the Maithripala-Wickremesinghe combination last November?
(A) I felt the last government had run out of steam, and was no longer acting in accordance with its manifesto. There was far less consultation than earlier, and the government seemed to support individuals who were acting in a silly manner while essential problems were not being addressed. The behaviour of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) worried me, as did the assault on the then Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner, in the UK, Chris Nonis, while we seemed to have lost the confidence of India, as was exemplified by it voting against us at the UN in 2012 and 2013. And then when India did not vote for the resolution against us in 2014, we failed to re-establish the sort of understanding that had held us in good stead in 2009.
I felt very much that more of the same government would be a disaster for the country, and also lead to massive problems on the international front. I would have preferred it if the President delayed the election and engaged in some promised reforms, and the Liberal Party wrote to him accordingly, but we got no response, only a brief acknowledgement. However, I made clear to Mr Wickremesinghe, we could not support him. Mr Sirisena seemed to us ideal, however, for there was continuity with regard to the achievements of the Rajapaksa government, with greater commitment to democratic governance.
(Q) Why did you switch allegiance to ‘bring-back-Mahinda’ campaign in March this year?
(A) I did not switch allegiance to the Bring Back Mahinda campaign, though I was sympathetic to his desire to come back since I believe he was very badly treated after the election. I had noted, at the time the need to treat him with respect, and I believe the readiness with which he gave up the leadership of the SLFP and the UPFA indicated that he would not have wanted to come back had he not felt threatened. The last straw for me was the hypocritical attempt to involve him in a bribery charge with regard to the Ministry for Tissa Attanayake, when Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed to have done the same and worse.
But I also felt that the ideals on which the campaign was being run were being traduced by Mr Wickremesinghe. Despite campaign pledges, he did not involve the SLFP in decision making, even though its leadership had made it clear in January that they would not try to topple the government. No proper SLFP representative was in the National Advisory Council, there was no consultation with regard to Electoral Reform, which was a key pledge. And when the government incorporated members of the SLFP, they left out the senior leadership, which meant that they were not in a position to put forward anyone else as a potential leader in any subsequent election.
Much of the blame for this goes, I think, to former President Kumaratunga who told me that she looked after the interests of the SLFP in forming the Cabinet, but she played completely into the hands of the UNP. I had, in fact, told her, in November, that, while she was energetic in adversity, she relaxed when her immediate objective was achieved. I think she understood what I meant, but said things would be different but I said I did not blame her, because I knew her heart was no longer in Sri Lanka. It was understandable that she wanted to spend much of her time in England and sure enough, soon after the election, she went off there for a month or so.
The problem was that she had no real interest in the SLFP or the UPFA and did not really have faith in its present leadership. She should have insisted on a higher proportion of non-UNP members, in the Cabinet, and she should have argued for meaningful portfolios for senior leaders when members of the SLFP were inducted into the Cabinet, in March. But she was concerned only with her own favourites, and was more intent on destroying Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is no way to look after the party which had given her a platform for so long.
In my own case, though I resigned from my portfolio, in February, because of broken promises and interference that made work difficult, I did not wish to leave the government side, but they simply ignored my resignation and the Prime Minister lied about this to the house about me. They did nothing about answering letters that came to the Ministry, and, in fact, sent me a whole load several weeks after I had vacated office. I did not want to be blamed for neglect so I thought it best to make the position crystal clear.
But that was in effect a good thing, for the Central Bank Bond Scam had then broken, and I realized that this government was both hypocritical and cunning in its corrupt practices. I continue to feel the President continued idealistic but, as is clear from the Prime Minister ignoring his wishes with regard to the Governor of the Central Bank, he was not able to assert his principles.
(Q) At the launch of Narrative III by Marga Institute, on August 29, 2014, in spite of being in the UPFA, you joined one-time Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Geneva, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka to roundly condemn the post-war conduct of the then Rajapaksa administration. Narrative III dealt with issues of truth and accountability during last stages of the war in Sri Lanka. The then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, came under heavy ‘fire’ at the book launch with some of the speakers alleging the war veteran of influencing foreign policy matters. Do you really believe the Rajapaksas are ready to act sensibly after being in the Opposition for six months?
(A) I believe they must, because they have realized how disastrous was the negative approach adopted previously. I personally believe the former President had a more open approach, but some of those around him were dogmatic, and they were not prepared to discuss the implications of their actions and those of others with experts in the field – such as for instance Dr Jayatilleka or Ms Kunanayagam.
But the very emergence of the Third Narrative, which was encouraged by some of those in government, indicates that there were more practical people around, though they had little influence. I believe such people, such as Nivard Cabraal, who was, I think responsible for hiring Sir Desmond de Silva when others were belittling the possible threat to us, should have a greater role in any future UPFA administration, as should Dayan and Tamara. I think they will ensure a return to the thoughtful foreign policy that brought us successfully through the war. But it is clear that for the last couple of years foreign policy was in a mess, and more concerned with personal aggrandizement than benefits to the country at large and systematic consolidation of the achievements of the first Rajapaksa Presidency.
(Q) The UPFA is confident of returning to power in mid-August. The parliament will meet on the morning of September 1, ahead of the 29 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As perhaps the only critic (while being in the previous government) of the handling of the Geneva issue, what do you think of the ‘ground situation? Have you (read as UPFA) reached a consensus as regards Sri Lanka’s response at the next Geneva round?
(A) I have no idea what has been discussed with regard to Geneva, but I believe that if we win the election there should be an immediate brainstorming session, with reaching out to all stakeholders. I am confident that, after an electoral victory, provided we are not intransigent, we can satisfy legitimate concerns while also making sure that unwarranted criticism comes to a halt.
But there is need of a moral approach to the issue, which means standing by commitments we made, while at the same time making it clear that we are perfectly competent to look into allegations and deal with any abuses. We must ensure transparency about this, and involve those countries that stood by us, in 2009, but feel that we did not move forward as quickly on Reconciliation as we should have.
(Q) Many professionals and some politicians reacted angrily to the conduct of the then President Rajapaksa. Having strongly condemned the previous government, Dr. Jayatilleka switched his allegiance to Rajapaksa several weeks before the January 8 presidential poll. One-time Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva, too, re-joined the Rajapaksa camp after having campaigned for his defeat. In act, Wimal Weerawansa fired the first salvo at the Rajapaksas by entering into a dialogue with Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thero in July last year. Do you regret having contributed Rajapaksa’s defeat last January?
(A) Not at all, because I think a change of approach was essential. To be honest, I expected President Rajapaksa to change his approach last year when he realized what problems he would face, and I was surprised that the results of the Uva Provincial Council election were not studied aright. But I think that by then those around him, who were benefiting from his Presidency were blinding him to what was going on in the world at large. Being a skilled politician though, I think by now he would have understood what needs to be done, and I am sure he will have mechanisms in place, if we win to avert the problems that were looming last year. But I think it will be important to have a dedicated agency for the purpose, and I hope we will have a Ministry of Human Rights and Reconciliation that will formulate policies, after consultation, and ensure their implementation. It is a shame that various initiatives the government took, the Human Rights Action Plan and the LLRC Action Plan, were not given priority, and I think we should also adopt, after due consultation, the National Reconciliation Policy and the Bill of Rights that I was responsible for formulating over the last several years.
(Q) General Secretary of the Communist Party veteran politician DEW Gunasekera strongly urged the then leader Rajapaksa not to call for early presidential. Gunasekera warned Rajapaksa of dire consequences if he went ahead with political project. The Island exclusively reported Gunasekera’s warning during the first week of Oct. 2014. Gunasekera had the backing of Messrs Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Prof. Tissa Vitharana. A confident Rajapaksa ignored their concerns. What was your position?
(A) We were of the same view, and we too wrote to him last October, though with less publicity. We had been talking to these left leaders and also other politicians, in the government, who were deeply unhappy. I should note though that, with one exception, there was almost no criticism of the President, but rather of those they thought were misusing his authority.
There were also worries that some elements close to the President, were supporting extreme movements such as the BBC, but in that regard I was heartened when the President expressed opposition to their actions. However, he should have been more firm with them and made clear his commitment to a pluralistic society. But that must be through listening to those genuinely representatives of those communities, not people chosen by those around him simply because they belong to minority communities. The failure of the government to win hearts and minds in the North, and increasingly the East too, was because it had no idea of what people really wanted, of which dignity is, perhaps, the most important element.
(Q) The questioner strongly believes the need to engage the Tamil Diaspora in spite of strong critics by some political parties and groups. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s efforts to reach an understanding with the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) as well as other influential groups are appreciated by many. Explain your stand on Diaspora and the LTTE rump?
(A) I have always argued for such engagement, and this is mentioned in the Draft National Reconciliation Policy I prepared with consultation of a range of stakeholders, way back in 2012. I have also drawn attention to the failure to address this even though it was recommended in the LLRC. I think the Foreign Ministry was much to blame in this regard, because this job was entrusted to them, not to the excellent team that did the bulk of work with regard to the LLRC. I am disappointed that work is not almost forgotten, and I think it was a mistake to put Chandrika Kumaratunga in charge of this area because, though I am sure her heart is in the right place, she cannot concentrate and is unwilling to build on what has already been done.
But I am glad the present Foreign Minister is talking to the diaspora, though I would wish it were done with better planning and in terms of the needs of Tamils in Sri Lanka as identified by government. I firmly believe that engagement with Tamils in this country is even more important than talking to the diaspora, as I made clear to the British Foreign Office in 2009 when they said we should be talking to Tamils. We knew that, I said, but I reprimanded them for saying we should talk to the TGTE, because our responsibility was the Tamils of Sri Lanka and not those who had been involved with terrorist activity in the past and still thought in terms of a separate state.
Unfortunately, except for a little I did in my regular visits to the North and East for meetings at Divisional Secretariats, we have not done enough about working with the Tamils, and, indeed, the Muslims and Sinhalese, who suffered because of the war. This government, too, has neglected them, and the unrest expressed by the Members of Parliament from the affected areas, which we heard about in April, reflects the problems that will arise if we think in terms only of elite needs and aspirations, whether those of the intellectuals of Jaffna or diaspora political theorists. So I think this government is in danger of allowing the Diaspora to speak for the Tamils. Though much of what came out in the joint communiqué was sensible, these were ideas government itself should have come out with, not allowing it to seem that it was the diaspora or Tamil politicians alone who could understand the problems of the Tamils. Ownership of Reconciliation must be with the government, though it should also involve consultation of all stakeholders.
(Q) Although some sections within the UPFA are critical of the role played by the US, the previous administration received critical support from the US to defeat the LTTE. With the US blessings, Israel remained a key weapons supplier, throughout the war, and the previous government expanded its relations with the US by entering into Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in early 2007.What is your perspective of the future US role here, in case UPFA regained power?
(A) We have to understand that the US is a very confused country, often with different elements pulling in different directions. This will get worse in an election year, which is why we have to remain in constant consultation with those who make decisions, whilst also understanding the possible limitations of their decision making power.
I think we did a very silly thing late in 2009, when, despite the efforts against us in Geneva, in May, a committee, under John Kerry, issued a very positive report. They also asked us some questions about the war, but included assistance with the answers, and we were foolish not to answer and try to address concerns. I kept urging that we respond swiftly, but government appointed a committee which slept on the matter, and that letter was finally forgotten.
I believe part of the problem is a complete lack of planning capacity in the Foreign Ministry, while it was also dominated in recent years by one or two officials who did not have the interests of the country at heart. So proper briefing notes were not prepared, and any form of intellectual engagement was frowned upon. I hope very much that one of the first priorities of the new government will be the establishment of think tanks that will help to formulate and implement policy.
To be continued on July 29